Until this summer, one could say with confidence that the ultimate contemporary American media icon of the "food nerd"--a super-foodie dedicated to acquiring culinary knowledge impressive to average foodies--was TV Food Network's Alton Brown. His cooking show, Good Eats, amazed us with this non-chef's grasp of food science. We were also wowed by the imagination and wit of set demos and costumes he used to make gastronomy and food anthropology entertaining.
His simultaneously lowbrow and eruditely ethnographic Feasting on Asphalt added a further dimension to the Brown persona. This miniseries followed Brown's cross-country biker ride through the landscapes, architectures, and dishes of myriad roadhouses, donut shops, and diners. Riding and maintaining a motorcycle, joking with his crewmates, and taking one road accident in stride made him seem no ordinary nerd with ordinary nerd limitations. His ruggedness and social skills made him transcendent, a real-life superhero.
As of May 31, Brown has company. The Food Network's offspring, The Cooking Channel, has spawned its own, next-generation, foodie meta-nerds. Meet Micah Donovan, Christopher Martin, and Nobu Adilman (pictured above)--simply known by the name of their show, Food Jammers.
If you simply watch their show and don't investigate the jammers' backgrounds (they're all artists, according to bios on the show's website), you wouldn't know what their occupations or training consisted of. They seem capable of everything. In one episode, they made their own sodas in a fleet of flavors. Are they cooks? Food scientists? Their precise commentary throughout the show about flavor profiles and their subtle adjustment of recipes showed command of flavor science and aesthetics. They also constructed the soda dispensers themselves--from scratch, like the sodas--and fashioned awesome themed handles that represented each flavor. Wow! Are they carpenters? Engineers? Artists? They dress like artists who are in graduate school. Or musicians. The title Food Jammers suggests they are some sort of band. Their hair styles suggest they are bringing the old look of Beck back.
The Food Jammers are Alton Brown on overdrive...and in triplicate. All three are equally knowledgeable, handy, and creative. But, unlike Brown, they are also all clued in to historical youthful pop culture and street culture and capable of campy plays on these. Yes, Brown got into Americana (Feasting on Asphalt), but this generation has a more street-fashion-conscious flavor.
Theirs is a new twist on the food-nerd persona. Two things have merged that used to be separate: youth- or street-culture cool and hardcore food nerdism. The ultimate convergence of this was the Food Jammers episode in which the guys constructed a "low-rider birthday cake" that involved not only making a top-notch cake by bakers' standards but also, inside and under the cake, functioning hydraulics. In addition to food knowledge, carpentry and engineering skills, a sense of multicultural and retro-cultural awareness manifested.
I suppose the combination of youthful meta-cool and food nerdism is the inevitable result of the popularization of foodism, its increasing penetration of Americans and their young via the multiplying food media and exposure to greater numbers of foodie parents. The evidence is everywhere on social networking sites, where ever younger people are "geeking out" on food.
The Cooking Channel folks undoubtedly have a grasp on this growing demo. The very existence of the channel is testament to Food Network's popularization as well as its increasing potential to turn off younger audiences post-2006 with its heightened emphasis on Paula Deen-style caricatures of middle-aged homey home cooks. The Cooking Channel steers clear of this. The majority of programs feature younger hosts with pre-children lifestyles or shows with older hosts shown not alongside children or families.
Market researchers must have also discovered that some young people are even more hardcore food geeks than their parents. Many of the new shows--including Food Jammers, Cook Like an Iron Chef, Drink Up, and Food Crafters--feature in-depth ingredient information and younger food experts dishing it out. Drink Up has introduced me to a new crop of mixologists and sommeliers who must be described as scholarly. This is not noteworthy in itself. What's new is the stylistic dissonance. Fresh faced, dressed in circa-1900s or steam-punk vintage, and discoursing on liquors with all the seriousness you imagine of an economics professor, I feel I'm in a malfunctioning time machine. I've landed where past and future, old and young, got scrambled.
I must be enjoying this place, though. I'm watching. Alton Brown, TVFN...you started it. And I think my inner food nerd likes it.
Copyright 2010 Alison Pearlman. All rights reserved.